A zebra’s coat is a giant bar code—and it can be scanned.
Every zebra has a unique pattern of stripes. And scientists can use the patterns like bar codes to identify individuals in a herd and track them over time.
Special software can scan images of zebras and identify individuals by “reading” their stripes like bar codes. It can even compensate for changes in posture and weight, including pregnancy.
To tell them apart, look at the butt.
There are plenty of useful field marks for distinguishing the zebra species, but one is to look at the pattern on the rump. Mountain zebras have a “gridiron” pattern of small stripes above their tail. Plains zebras have broad bands across the rear. Grevy’s zebras have a sort of triangle pattern on the rump, with lots of small lines near the tail. Once you learn these differences, you’ll tell them apart with ease—just be sure to explain to your safari companions why you’re so fascinated by zebra butts.
Zebras neigh, bray, and … bark.
Zebras make all sorts of weird sounds. Mountain zebras whinny like a horse, Grevy’s zebras bray like a donkey, and plains zebras bark like dogs. Alarmed stallions may squeal or snort, and happy zebras may push air between their lips when they’re eating.
Plains zebras make grasslands tastier.
For pickier grazers such as gazelles and wildebeest, zebras are a huge boon. Those striped heroes have special digestive systems that can quickly process lower-quality forage. Plains zebras are often the first to enter an un-grazed grassy area. They’ll munch on older, harder, less nutritious plants that other grazers can’t eat. Once the old stuff is cleared out, tender new growth pops up. More selective grazers will then wander in and eat the good stuff.
Don’t ride a zebra.
No, really: don’t. Humans domesticated horses thousands of years ago, modifying their appearance and behaviour and turning them into compliant, beloved companions. But zebras were never domesticated. It’s sort of like the difference between a poodle and a wolf.
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